International Educators Need To End Silence On Gaza

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Mark A Ashwill  13 January 2024
TweetWhatsapp “There is a price to pay for speaking the truth. There is a bigger price for living a lie.” – Cornel West

I recently saw a post on LinkedIn by Elena D Corbett, director of education abroad at Amideast, whom I immediately recognised as a kindred spirit. In no uncertain terms, she threw down the gauntlet for her fellow United States international educators, calling them out for tolerating a “culture of silence” and indirectly challenging them to embrace a culture of action.

“For those who remember, what were US international education practitioners doing back in the early days of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the horrors of the surveillance and harassment regime that was enacted against so many Americans in the wake of 9/11? I’m genuinely curious,” she wrote.

As someone who has been in the field of international education for 35 years, I’m old enough to remember. The sad but true answer is “not much”.

Corbett proceeded to ask more questions of a rhetorical nature. “Was the space active? Did it encourage knowledge? Did it organise? Or was there a culture of mostly silence back then, too, going about in the day-to-day as if nothing was amiss? A field that screams so loudly about justice is silent about so much… Has this always been true?”

The short answers are a resounding no, no, no, yes and yes. The modus operandi of most US colleagues is to keep their heads down, do their job and maybe focus on a few pet issues that don’t call into question the status quo. Virtue signalling in the truest sense of the term is de rigueur at the obvious expense of substance. Most embody, whether consciously or subconsciously, the Japanese expression that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.

Culture of silence

One of the reasons for this passive mindset is cultural. Despite all the talk about individualism and freedom, the US is a highly conformist culture with its own “prevailing orthodoxy” – with a nod to George Orwell – and its own set of unwritten rules and ideological lines that you cross at your own risk.

Freedom of expression and a ‘free press’ are only free within certain prescribed boundaries. In this sense, self-censorship is much more effective than the heavy-handed state variety.

Considering that US international educators are either native-born or naturalised US Americans who have internalised key aspects of the culture, it should come as no surprise that most US colleagues are de facto participants in a culture of silence.

Ironically, it’s not a stretch to extend Michael Apple’s pioneering work on the hidden curriculum, the notion that a curriculum is not an unbiased entity but rather one that supports the dominant culture and its hegemony, excluding the voices and narratives of those who are marginalised, to the international education profession in the US.

‘Critical thinking’ for most US Americans, now more than ever, is critical thinking in a box with increasingly narrow parameters.

One colleague who responded to the original post wondered about “folks’ potential lack of knowledge (and fear to speak on topics they don’t know about) as well as their capacity to explicitly grapple and engage with tragedy, harm and war. Especially when simultaneously managing jobs, marriages, pets, houses, health, kids, etc.”

He also reminisced about COVID-19 and the burnout that many people experienced saying: “I turned to my wife, and I said something along the lines of… ‘I care about people. Deeply. But my cup is empty. The radius of my thoughts and actions will have to shrink to keep moving forward. This means I will love and care for our immediate family, focus on what I can control, and limit all other inputs/outputs’.”

He continued: “At that time, my primary goals were to keep my job, pay the bills, keep food on the table and make sure there was joy in our house. Even when there was/is chaos, pain and problems. Maybe all around. Personally, it hurts to not be more vocal on various topics, more involved or more of an agent for change. We’re heavily involved in our local community and even that is hard to sustain at times.”

Fear

It’s clear that he speaks for many US Americans, including international educators, which is why the space isn’t active, doesn’t encourage knowledge and doesn’t organise. The logical outcome is a culture of silence.

Some would argue that the system works exactly as it should in favour of those with political and financial power and influence, the oppressors and exploiters, at the expense of their victims both at home and abroad.

This is only part of the story. The most salient reason so few colleagues speak out about important issues is not a lack of time or knowledge; it’s the F-word. Fear of raising the ire of colleagues, including supervisors and senior colleagues, fear of becoming an outcast, fear of losing status and fear of sharing the dreaded fate of the unpopular kids.

For example, if you turn the clock back 20 years, it was absolute silence from most US international educators after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. You didn’t have to be fluent in Arabic and a country or regional expert to realise that elective war was an outrage and a clear violation of international law that resulted in war crimes, widespread psychological trauma and the displacement of millions. (Check out the Costs of War website for more information.)

A plenary session at the 2003 NAFSA: Association of International Educators annual conference in Salt Lake City featured Thomas Farrell, a senior US State Department political appointee, neoconservative and former international educator, no less, who brayed that one can no longer claim to “hate this government’s policies but love the country”, a clear expression of nationalism in defence of the Iraq war.

Where was NAFSA’s outrage at that audacious claim? For that matter, where was the outrage of my colleagues in the audience? Very few I spoke with seemed to understand the significance of Farrell’s words.

This message of the chilling power of fear came through loud and clear in the responses I received to an inquiry I sent to selected international education colleagues in the US and other countries.

Thomas Bogenschild, senior advisor and affiliate, Gateway International Group, provided feedback that’s worth quoting in its entirety because of the range of issues he touches on: “My immediate take: ‘action’ and ‘taking a stand’ in international education (IE) is never done in a vacuum.

“If every person ‘in the field’ were tenured faculty members and were immune from retaliation or threat in their professional domain, we might be able to approach the question. But in fact, ‘the field’ is a gloss for a vast array of power relationships, both internal and external to the working domain.

“In higher education, most administrators and practitioners have no real job security, and can easily be fired, sabotaged, blackballed, restructured, reassigned and silenced, regardless of any perceived protections.

“HR? They work for what we used to call ‘The Man’, not for you. Unions? Where they exist, reassignment is the way to flush unwanted output. The available arsenal in any given institution is formidable, and all are susceptible to pressure from outside power centres.

“We all know that tenure is the only protection worth anything. But it isn’t a guarantee that one can speak freely as we also know that is a chimera. One may not be fired, but there are many ways to make your life hell, though still collecting a paycheck.

“Those tenured few, a small fraction of those ‘in the field’ can ‘take a stand’ – with limited protection but basic freedom, subject to power politics. Others? I’d reckon that a good 75% to 80% of ‘the IE field’ in the academy run significant personal risks.

“But that is the academy – what about the associations and the very large number of private concerns making up ‘the field’? The associations run the risk of exclusionary and-or overtly partisan speech. The big ones have a degree of financial stability and can weather drop-offs in memberships. But it all hurts, and many if not most, live hand to mouth and are quite dependent on memberships.

“Several area studies associations have yielded to openly partisan rhetoric at times – and suffered downturns. They feel like they fought the good fight, and I personally think they did in many cases. But they took some hits. And those that were more cautious were more buoyant.

“The private sector of ‘the field’, including study abroad providers and professional services (for example, insurance, safety and risk and tech), probably outnumbers IE professionals embedded in higher education institutions and elsewhere. Here it is all about branding and marketing.

“Some will take risks to identify, take a public stand, send a percent of profits to victims or the oppressed etc. If it fits with their brand, great. But most of those ‘in the field’ might be committing financial [suicide]. Interesting that so many in the private sector are refugees from academia.

“Why are people afraid to ‘speak out’ or ‘take a stand’? It is pretty obvious to me: a justifiable fear of retaliation.”

Fraying of the social compact

A US university colleague who asked to be quoted on background, thus confirming Bogenschild’s final point, noted how the situation has changed since 9/11.

He recalled, as do I, the “outpouring of support” for Middle Eastern and Muslim students at his institution and how they were able to surround a mosque “four people deep as a visible witness to the shared humanity of the community and a visible statement of solidarity to those who would use the opportunity to try to advance an agenda of hatred”.

He added that “the Trump years have changed a lot and the vitriol and violence that were fringe preoccupations are now mainstream. The concurrent fraying of the social compact and the reduction into tribes of us and them, away from ‘we the people’, have also sapped vital energies that could go into standing for justice and freedom.”

He referred to the current divisions and “the challenge of criticising the government of Israel or the leaders of the various Palestinian movements without being sucked into the tropes of antisemitism or anti-Palestinian” as “background to the financial pressures that institutions face domestically, and the aversion, with a few brave exceptions, to be publicly critical of our field and our colleagues for their lack of courage. It is not surprising that there is a profound lack of courage in this arena at this moment.

“If ever there were a time for our leadership associations like ACE [American Council on Education] and the other coalitions to take a leading role this would be it, but they too are handicapped in not wanting to take sides between vocal proponents on both sides and in the process risking their funding,” he said.

All of this is yet more compelling evidence that the current system will remain unchallenged and unchanged to the benefit of those who control the levers of political and economic power.

In her original post, Corbett asked those fundamental questions about the profession and its practitioners against the backdrop of Israel’s assault on Gaza. Where are the screams for justice among those who profess to care about such matters? You can hear them muffled behind closed doors and off the record.

In my October 2023 essay “Let’s ditch the binaries and join the ‘all of humanity’ club”, I wrote about a US colleague who reverted to tribal loyalties by objecting to the fact that the Forum on Education Abroad acknowledged both sides when it mentioned “the war in Israel and Gaza and the resulting injuries, trauma and loss of life” in its official statement posted after the Hamas attack.

Other organisations followed the same politically correct script by speaking out against violence on both sides. NAFSA’s statement is probably the most representative. It condemned “the senseless and heinous acts by Hamas against innocent Israeli civilians” and added: “We also mourn the tragic loss of Palestinian civilian lives in Gaza. Our shared humanity during this time of shock, trauma and grief calls for us to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering and demonstrate compassion and care for those near and far…

“Acts of war and dehumanisation are in direct opposition to our values as international educators. We believe in the power of people-to-people exchanges, diplomacy and dialogue to build bridges across differences. We must remain steadfast in our resolve to create a more peaceful, just and equitable world.”

Historical context

What about an exploration of the historical context of the Hamas attack? It didn’t occur in a vacuum. What about criticism of those governments and organisations that support, directly and indirectly, this unfolding human tragedy?

As Daniel Spector wrote in his October 2023 essay, “On Solidarity and War Crimes”: “To say that Hamas’ attack was a war crime does not excuse or divert attention from Israel’s history of war crimes, or equate what Hamas did with what Israel has been doing for 75 years. Hamas’ war crime stands on its own and must be judged on its own.

“Israel is fundamentally and historically – but not solely – responsible for the unending violence in Israel-Palestine, and Hamas committed a war crime; Palestinian civilians are the primary victims of Israel’s unending violence, and killing Israeli civilians is wrong.”

Juan Cole reported on 28 December 2023, based on information provided by the Gaza Ministry of Education, that “between 7 October and 26 December, more than 4,037 students and 209 educational staff were killed, and more than 7,259 students and 619 teachers were injured in Gaza”.

He added the following and pointed the finger squarely at US higher education: “Let me just repeat this incredible statistic. Israel has murdered over 4,000 students. Moreover, we haven’t heard a peep about this from any university administration in the United States – offices that routinely denounce attacks on higher education elsewhere in the world. People who are up in arms about banning books in schools don’t seem to care about this big pile of dead students, including K-12 and undergraduates.”

What about the US international education community? Why not speak the truth and hold those responsible accountable for their actions, if only rhetorically? Instead, there is silence. Those who have the courage to speak out and challenge the ‘prevailing orthodoxy’ by condemning Israel’s actions are written off as antisemites.

The answers are blind support for Israel, fear and funding; truth, justice and common decency be damned.

Our responsibility

My kindred spirit colleague concluded her appeal about the Gaza situation by asserting that “we have such a great responsibility to do whatever it takes to make sure it’s not forgotten or repeated and that what it wrought and established is never normalised”.

Those who check off numerous circles of privilege, which includes most US international educators, should use their privilege(s) for the benefit of others.

Sonia Thompson sums up what to do with your privilege in this 2021 Inc. article: “While you didn’t choose many of the privileges that were afforded to you in life, you do get to choose how you will use them. You can use them to level the playing field for others. Or you can keep it to yourself, and let others deal with the cards they’ve been dealt on their own.

“Your privilege has power. And that power is being put to work whether you are intentional about how to use your privilege or not. Use your privilege for the greater good, rather than just to advance your own good.”

This is the essence of allyship, defined by Poornima Luthra, teaching associate professor at the Copenhagen Business School and author of The Art of Active Allyship, as “a lifelong process of building and nurturing supportive relationships with underrepresented, marginalised or discriminated individuals or groups with the aim of advancing inclusion. It is through this process that we overcome our fears of engaging with DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).

“Allyship is about progress, not perfection. Allyship is active, not passive. It requires frequent and consistent behaviours. Allyship is not performative. It’s about lifting others and creating platforms for them so that their voices are heard. Allyship is not about fixing others.”

Global citizenship

It is our solemn responsibility as global citizens to push back against these injustices in word and deed because it’s the right thing to do and so that we look back on our life and not regret that we remained silent in the face of injustice and lived a lie because we were worried about what others would think, or about position, reputation and money.

Global citizenship – with or without national affiliation – is the notion that one’s identity transcends national borders and that national interests must not supersede global interests, especially if the former are damaging to the latter.

While most of us carry at least one national passport out of necessity, the world is our country, all human beings are our sisters and brothers, and to do good is our religion, to paraphrase Thomas Paine. We are all citizens of Planet Earth and members of humanity, regardless of our nationality.

Our well-being forms an unbreakable bond with that of our fellow human beings and the natural world. It is the ultimate expression of inclusion that has many positive implications for peace, justice, environmental protection and economic sustainability. We are therefore obliged to reject a culture of silence and embrace one of action and engagement.

In light of the reality that too many US international educators are fiddling while Rome burns, we would all do well to adopt the New Year’s resolutions that Dr Autumn BlackDeer, a queer anti-colonial scholar-activist from the Southern Cheyenne Nation and an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, shared on her LinkedIn page:

“Resolve to speak up instead of staying silent.

Resolve to become okay with being unliked for how often you disrupt the status quo. Resolve to learn discernment for when to step up and lead and when to step back and listen. Resolve to show up.”

Dr Mark A Ashwill is managing director and co-founder of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States and officially accredited institutions in other countries. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Vietnamist of selected English and Vietnamese language essays can be accessed from his blog.

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